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Sunday, November 21, 2010

More of Robert Graves

I am convinced that WWI was the worst for suffering. Many of the casualties resulted from an officer in the rear lines looking up from his tea and crumpets, glancing at a map, and saying "I say, old chap, run up and tell the men in seventh I want them to make an assault on the lines at 1100 today." The men would obey, run headlong into entrenched machine guns and sometimes suffer 90% casualties.

It was the result of modern weaponry being used together with out-of-date tactics. The figures speak for themselves: Great Britain sent in 9 million men, 3.1 million were killed, wounded, or MIA. For Germany, there were 7.1 million casualties out of 11 million. France suffered a 73% casualty rate.

There were 6.8 million civilian casualties. The full toll of the war was 37 million casualties.


    * “…We had no mental picture of what the trenches would be like, and were almost as ignorant as a young soldier who joined us a week or two later…” (Robert Graves, 1957, pg. 83 of Penguin Edition).

    * “…Apart from wounds, gas, and the accidents of war, the life of the trench soldier could not be called unealthy while his ductless glands still functioned well…” (pg. 144).

    * “…At Fricourt, the trenches were cut in chalk, which we found more tolerable in wet weather than La Bassée clay…” (pg. 160).

    * “…The trenches were wide and tumble-down, too shallow in many places, and without sufficient traverses…We busied ourselves raising the frontline parapet and building traverses to limit the damage of the trench-mortar shells that fell continually. Every night not only the companies in the front line, but both support companies, kept hard at work all the time…” (pg. 160).

    * “…Dr Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I remember being put on the stretcher, and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant…They laid my stretcher in a corner of the dressing-station, where i remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours…” (pg. 181).

    * “…Suddenly I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animals groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before…One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yards’ range.” (pg. 98).

    * “…I passed by the bloated and stinking corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close-shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. I came across two other unforgettable corpses: a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr Regiment had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously.” (pg. 175).

    * “…The first dead body I came upon was Samson’s, hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death. (pg. 133).

    * “…Many of the craters contained the corpses of men who had been wounded and crept in there to die. Some were skeletons, picked clean by the rats…” (pg. 117).

    * “…Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions…After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to sweel until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy…” (pg. 137).

    * “…I shook the sleeper by the arm and noticed suddenly the hole in the back of his head. He had taken off the boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with one toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. ‘Why did he do it?’ I asked. ‘He went through the last push, sir, and that sent him a bit queer; on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap.’…” (pg. 89).

    * “…We crawled through our own wire entanglements and along a dry ditch; ripping our clothes on more barbed-wire, glaring into the darkness until it began turning round and round. Once I snatched my fingers in horror from where I had planted them on the slimy body of an old corpse. We nudged each other with rapidly beating hearts at the slightest noise or suspicion: crawling, watching, crawling, shamming dead under the blinding light of enemy flares, and again crawling, watching, crawling…” (pg. 110).

    * “…The gas-men…managed to discharge one or two cylinders; the gas went whistling out, formed a thick cloud a few yards’ off in No Man’s Land, and then gradually spread back into our trenches. The Germans, who have been expecting gas, immediately put on their gas-helmets: semi-rigid ones, better than ours…Then their batteries opened on our lines. The confusion in the front trench must have been horrible; direct hits broke several of the gas-cylinders, the trench filled with gas, the gas company stampeded…” (pg. 128).

    * “… ‘Who’s the poor bastard, Dai?’ the guide asked the leading stretcher-bearer. ‘Sergeant Gallagher,’ Dai answered. ‘He thought he saw a Fritz in No Man’s Land near our wire, so the silly booger takes one of them new issue percussion bombs and shots it at ‘im. Silly booger aims too low, it hits the top of the parapet and bursts back. Deoul! Man, it breaks his silly f---ing jaw and blows a grat lump from his silly f---ing face, whatever. Poor silly booger! Not worth sweating to get him back! He’s put paid to, whatever.’ The wounded man had a sandbag over his face. He died before they got him to the dressing-station…” (pg. 85).

    * “…I heard a sudden crash. A sergeant…had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instuctor arrived. He picked up a n° 1 percussion grenade and said: ‘Now lads, you’ve got to be careful here! Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging this chap, it’ll go off.’ To illustrate the point, he rapped the grenade against the table edge. It killed him and the man next to him and wounded twelve others more or less severely…” (pg. 159).

    * “…Those were early days of trench warfare, the days of the jam-tin bomb and the gas-pipe trench-mortar: still innocent of Lewis or Stokes guns, steel helmets, telescopic rifle-sights, gas-shells, pill-boxes, tanks, well-organized trench-raids, or any of the later refinements of trench warfare…” (pg. 82).

    * “…My best way of lasting through to the end of the war would be to get wounded. The best time to get wounded would be at night and in the open, with rifle fire more or less unaimed and my whole body exposed…” (Graves, Penguin Books 1957, pg. 111).

    * “…An eight-inch shell burst three paces behind me. I heard the explosion, and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but without any pain. I took the punch merely for the shock of the explosion; but blood trickled into my eye and, turning faint, I called to Moodie: ‘I’ve been hit.’ Then I fell…” (Graves, Penguin Books 1957, pg. 181).

    * “…Henry, according to Hill, had dragged five wounded man into a shell-hole and thrown up a sort of parapet with his hands and the bowie-knife which he carried…”  (pg. 134).

    * “…He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. There he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher-party, and the man eventually recovered…” (pg. 138).

    * “…I had a fearful nightmare: of somebody handling me secretly, choosing the place to drive a knife into me. Finally, he gripped me in the small of my back. I woke up with a start, shouting, punched at the assassin’s hand – and found I had killed a mouse which had run down my neck for fear of the shells…” (pg. 177).

    * “…I saw a sniper killed once at Cuinchy, who had been firing all day from a shell-hole between the lines. He wore a sort of cape made of imitation grass, his face was painted green and brown, and his rifle was also green-fringed…” (pg. 113).

    * “…By atrocities we meant, specifically, rape, mutilation, and torture – not summary shootings of suspected spies, francs-tireurs, or disobedient local officials. If the atrocity-list had to include the accidental-on-purpose bombing or machine-gunning of civilians from the air, the Allies were now committing as many atrocities as the Germans…” (pg. 153).

    * “…I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight…Strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech and revisit my favourite country, I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield…” (pg. 235).

    * “…England looked strange to us returned soldiers…The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible…” (pg. 188).

    * Alluding to Siegfried  Sassoon: “…He wrote that often when  he went for a walk he saw corpses  lying about on the pavements…” (pg.  211)

"Memento mori"



Jean&Vic said...

As I have told Jean, some of my worst nightmares come from having read accounts from men who lived through this and told what they saw there. Sad for me to say, but I cannot recall if the stories told were his or another account,